"Let's do this the right way"
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Duxford’s landmark Battle of Britain Air Show

Duxford’s landmark Battle of Britain Air Show

We’ve seen many mock dogfights over Duxford in recent years, but few have given quite so stirring an impression of a Battle of Britain-era melee as September 2019’s. The UK’s airworthy Buchón population (‘Red 11’ was not flying at the time of the airshow) strafed the airfield to open the sequence, drawing the ire of three early mark Spitfires and four Hurricanes; in short order the Buchóns and Spitfires engaged in a tail chase to the south as the Hurricanes flew by closer to the crowd, initially in a box-four formation before splitting into their own tail chase over the grass runway. With the “Messerschmitts” pouring smoke, strains of William Walton’s legendary Battle in the Air echoing over the airfield, and eleven fighters tangling at different altitudes and distances, this was quite the spectacle and set the bar high for the rest of the afternoon’s flying.

Historic types dominated the programme, ranging from the Great War Display Team and the Historic Aircraft Collection’s quite magnificent DH-9 through to high-performance piston fighters and classic jets; this was one of the most impressive historic aircraft line-ups of modern times. Modern and civilian acts were notably omitted, but their absence was hardly felt – this was an airshow for the purist, albeit with plenty of exciting flying to entertain families and enthusiasts alike.

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The post-restoration flight of the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARCo) Westland Lysander last year enabled the return of the unique ‘Mercury Flight’, as all bar one of the world’s serviceable Mercury engines flew together. Lee Proudfoot led the formation in the Bristol Blenheim, with Dodge Bailey and Paul Stone in The Shuttleworth Collection’s Lysander and Gladiator joining Dave Ratcliffe in the aforementioned ARCo Lysander for a number of formation passes before the quartet split into their respective display sequences. This much-awaited spectacle was an absolute treat for vintage aviation aficionados.

Sequence of the day for many was the first-time grouping of the UK’s three airworthy Hawker Sea Furies, with Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ Fury ISS, Navy Wings’ Sea Fury T.20 and Shaun Patrick’s R2800-powered Sea Fury T.20 positively tearing the skies apart. Paul Bonhomme led Chris Gotke and Eskil Amdal through a lengthy sequence that transitioned seamlessly from an echelon arrival to vertical tail-chasing aerobatics to an extended series of close formation passes. We’ve seen plenty of exciting Sea Fury groupings in the past, but nothing quite like this; for sheer visual and aural impact, this was one of the finest multi-aircraft warbird flights seen at Duxford in recent years.

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Another first was the gathering of the UK’s airworthy P-51D Mustang population, the three Duxford based machines – Contrary Mary, Miss Helen and ‘The Shark’, owned by Anglia Aircraft Restorations, Robert Tyrrell and Shaun Patrick respectively – joined by the Hangar 11 Collection’s Tall in the Saddle. Mark Levy led the pack, with John Dodd and Lars Ness on each wing and Peter Teichman bringing up the rear, flying first in a close box-four formation before splitting into a sweeping tail-chase.

Particularly impressive were the solo flights from Jon Gowdy in P-47D Thunderbolt Nellie B and Dave Southwood in the Grumman Wildcat, joined in the air by B-17 Flying Fortress Sally B and Plane Sailing’s Catalina respectively, whilst Stuart Goldspink put on a fine showing in The Fighter Collection’s Corsair. It was also pleasing to see the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster back in the air over Duxford after a truncated 2019 display season.

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Continental visitors came in the form of Emiliano del Buono’s Yak-9, which led Will Greenwood’s smart Normandie-Niemen Yak-3 through an excellent sequence, and the Norwegian Historical Squadron’s MiG-15 (SB Lim-2) and T-33, the latter pair flying a well-choreographed formation and dogfight sequence that was contextualised by Ben Dunnell’s expert commentary. Easily overlooked amongst the warbird-heavy content was the Early Birds Foundation’s Vultee BT-13 Valiant, an exquisite trainer that was suitably paired with the NA-64 Yale, Mark Linney’s Boeing Stearman and a pair of Aircraft Restoration Company-operated Harvards for an Allied trainer montage.

The now annual massed Spitfire formation rounded off each day’s flying programme. Historically, these were landmark sequences that defined each of the Battle of Britain anniversary airshows – 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 all being remembered for their exceptional Spitfire gatherings – but the decision to make them an annual fixture runs the risk of diminishing returns. How will 2020’s Battle of Britain 80th anniversary offering differ from the last five near-identical finales?

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On this occasion, John Romain held court in the Imperial War Museums’ Spitfire Mk.I N3200 while Cliff Spink assembled a formation of another 14 of the type, marks V through XVIII, to the south. The formation passed in two elements – a diamond nine followed by two vics of three – before the nine-ship flew a glorious formation topside pass along the length of the crowdline.

Concluding the main airshow on both days was an aerial tribute to Mark Hanna, so tragically lost in a flying accident in Spain 20 years ago. Flown by Brian Smith in the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire Mk.IX MH434, the lyrical aerobatics played out first to strains of the Last Post before concluding in silence, the sound of the Spitfire’s Merlin engine cutting through the vivid September air. Set against the immediacy of a striking early autumn sky and all the more evocative for its simplicity, this elegantly flown display was a beautifully composed tribute to its pilot’s friend and colleague. The Hannas and their Old Flying Machine Company were Brian’s gateway into warbird flying and indeed, MH434 was the first warbird he flew under the watchful eyes of Ray and Mark, more than 30 years ago. As the Spitfire made one final low pass along the grass and poignantly pitched up and away to the east, almost disappearing from sight in the burning blue, commentator Ben Dunnell gave one final salute to Mark Hanna, the ‘missing man’, a peerless aviator lost well before his time.

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Sunday evening’s closing slot was handed to Air Marshal (Retd.) Cliff Spink, an enduring name in the historic aviation scene with almost 30 years’ experience on warbirds, to fly one final air display before retiring from airshow flying. His solo in Spitfire Mk.XVIII SM845 was something to behold – a true “I was there” moment that brought memories of happy days spent at Duxford flooding back. As Messrs Spink and Smith joined the downwind leg and turned back towards Duxford for one final pass in formation, Brian called over the radio, “Low as you like, Cliff. Let’s do this the right way.”

There was a certain poetry to the Battle of Britain Air Show. The weekend Cliff Spink retired we saw his protégé, Sam Worthington-Leese, flying his first Duxford air display in the ARCo-operated ex-Boscombe Down Harvard. Through the efforts of the “old guard”, men like Cliff Spink, Brian Smith and John Romain, and through Richard Grace and Anglia Aircraft Restorations at Sywell, we’ve seen an influx of new pilots to a warbird scene that was in dire need of some new blood after the retirement from airshow flying of several highly experienced aviators in the last decade – Stephen Grey, Carl Schofield, Nigel Lamb, Alister Kay and Keith Skilling, to name prominent examples. It seems somewhat apt that many of the younger pilots were led by Cliff in the climatic Spitfire formation. Concluding on a reflective note that subtly suggested the imminent ending of an era and the establishment of a new generation of aviators alongside the remaining polymaths of the vintage aviation circuit, the Battle of Britain Air Show was nothing less than a 2019 season highlight, and one of the venue’s very best air displays of recent years.